Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Ticking Time Bomb Challenge

I’m hearing this argument on talk radio a lot lately.

You are a government agent who has discovered a plot to set off a nuclear weapon in the US. You have captured one of the terrorists involved in the plot, and you are convinced that your captive knows where to find the bomb. You are also convinced that the bomb will go off in just a few hours, so time is of the essence. Would you torture the captive to make him tell you the location of the bomb?
This argument is designed to get you to admit that the federal government should not publicly outlaw “aggressive interrogation” techniques like waterboarding. If you say “yes”, you agree that such techniques should not be forbidden; if you say “no”, you put the well-being of one terrorist ahead of the lives of thousands of American citizens.

Let me go on record as saying that the government should unequivocally outlaw torture. Not only is it unethical, it’s an unreliable means of getting information. Victims of torture do not necessarily tell the truth. Generally speaking, they tell the torturer whatever they think will make the torture stop, whether it’s true or not. In the hypothetical situation, the interrogator really doesn’t have a way to tell if the captive is lying; anything the captive says could lead agents on a wild goose chase, making it even less likely that they’ll succeed in stopping the bomb.

But let’s say that I really am convinced that my captive has the information needed to save thousands of American lives and that I’m convinced I can get that information from him in time to do something about it. In that case, yes, I will use “aggressive techniques” to extract the information. I will not, however, complain when I’m sent to prison for torturing the guy. If the information was worth his pain and suffering, then it’s also worth my personal freedom.

Can we give this argument a rest, now?


Saranga said...

Some very godo points, well made.

Anonymous said...

Start with mid-grade techniques, work up to the worst tortures (and we will not mince words here) for those who lie. And if they have people they care for, hunt them down and torture them in front of their eyes. Fighting is the last (and least moral) resort in any case, so morality is out the window by this point anyway. The only positive thing that can come out of this whole mess is a chance at a better future for those who come after. They may condemn us for having had to do such things, but at least then they would have the chance make the judgement in a free world. I can rest with true honor and a ruined reputation for all time, if I had provided such a world to posterity. Also, consider the kinds of things that the terrorists do as a matter of course in their own government, mush less warmaking.

Lord Runolfr said...

If you have time to check the validity of your captives statements, you probably have enough time to do without actual "torture".

Mind you, I actually have no objection to using pharmaceuticals to loosen a prisoner's tongue, if their administered by qualified medical personnel. My general standard is "would I object to foreign agents using this method on my own captured troops" when deciding whether a particular technique is acceptable.

Anonymous said...

Your standard is already generally exceeded in practice, though; seems 10 eyes for an eye worked for the Russians in Lebanon, when their personnel were kidnapped and tortured they did the same thing to even higher numbers of the groups involved, and that crap ceased fast.